In 2016 we foreshadowed Highways England’s intention to trial autonomous vehicles on motorways by the end of 2017, set out in its “Innovation strategy”. Indeed a variety of trials have taken place with varying results. However in October 2017 the chancellor upped the ante, now aiming to test fully self-driving cars (with no driver at the wheel) as early as 2019, and allowing fully self-driving cars to operate freely on UK streets from 2021. This goal is accompanied by an additional £100 million in funding for AI research and development.
Tests to date have always included a driver at the wheel as required by law, and Parliament will have to approve changes to the Road Traffic Act to allow such any driverless testing. The FT reports that transport secretary Chris Grayling is convinced the testing cars are safe to operate under such conditions – whether his colleagues agree remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, just a few days ago the New York Times reported that General Motors had submitted a petition to the United States Department of Transportation seeking permission to begin operating fully autonomous cars — without steering wheels or pedals — in a commercial ride-hailing service in 2019. This vote of confidence in their capabilities is indeed eye-opening, although it may be the first in a lengthy legal process as state-based approval will also be needed. Indeed it may be wise to retain some healthy scepticism to how quickly governments will allow the technology will be deployed. The tests so far do not account for the huge variability of conditions faced by drivers in the UK today, and any high profile accidents may result in political delays. Nevertheless, with key individuals and corporates on board the area remains ripe with opportunities for entrepreneurs to sell their services and contribute to bringing down the various barriers faced by the technology.